Most front-office execs are just that: front-office execs. But Masai Ujiri? He’s a bona fide folk hero.
Since joining the Toronto Raptors as the team’s general manager in 2013, he’s woven himself into the city’s collective consciousness through his unflagging work on and off the court. Not only has he been one of the NBA’s most outspoken voices on social justice, the Nigeria native leads a basketball camp, Giants of Africa, that encourages young players in his home continent to dream big. He also secured the 6ix its first Larry O’Brien trophy in 2019, helping the city—and all of Canada—feel victory for the first time in ages. So you can understand why fans acted like they’d won another championship when Ujiri announced he was re-signing with the Raptors—as vice-chairman and president—earlier this summer.
While delivering a speech in Toronto for the unveiling of his new art installation, Humanity, on Wednesday, Ujiri explained why he decided to re-up with the organization, getting emotional in the process.
“You know why I’m staying here? You know why I love here? It’s because of that: diversity, people. When I come to the games every day, I see people from everywhere,” he said, fighting back tears.
That vision—of people from all walks of life uniting as one—is the driving force behind his installation. Erected outside of Union Station by Ramm Design, the eight-foot high circular sculpture is made up of 35 words that reflect what humanity means to Ujiri. The piece uses light in order to create a cascading effect with its words, and serve as a tangible reminder to people to think about the ties that bind us all. It will stay on display until October 31.
The artwork is an extension of Ujiri’s larger Humanity Movement, which he launched last year after the civil rights protests that erupted around the world—and after his own experience with racial profiling, when he was shoved by a sheriff’s deputy while trying to join the Raptors to celebrate winning the NBA championship against the Golden State Warriors in 2019. The movement aims to help people “reach a day when we see each other. Really see. The way we did when we first opened our eyes,” reads a manifesto written by Ujiri.
We caught up with Ujiri at his Humanity unveiling to chat about his movement, what’s changed since last year’s George Floyd protests, meeting Nelson Mandela, and why Toronto feels like home to him.
First off, this Humanity installation behind you is just beautiful. Tell me about this art piece and the significance of it.
You know, inspired by Nelson Mandela with his humanity efforts and things he’s done for us before he passed and even after, it became very important to me to really preach about humanity, to really talk about it, especially during the pandemic. We need to show the kinder sides of everybody. We need to show more kindness to each other. And the installation just comes from putting something where there are all these words that remind us of the goodness of the world, not necessarily all that bad news and what we watch every day. We are human beings when we come down to it. We are all human beings. And we need that kindness. And so that’s the inspiration. It’s been a hard year and a half for all of us. Everybody. I know people have gone through hard times. And as we come back out of it now, I think it’s good that we share better moments, and are kinder to each other. We see a lot of social injustice, lots of things going on in the world, and we can be better. And it starts with all of us individually.
Did you get a chance to meet Nelson Mandela before he passed?
Yes, I did a couple of times. During the Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa many years ago, we got the chance—they chose 10 of us to go to meet him. And I’ll never forget, I was standing with the great Dikembe Mutombo and Nelson Mandela comes out and he walks right to both of us. And he said to Dikembe Mutombo, “It’s a great thing that you are doing for the people of Africa. Don’t ever stop.” And those are some of the most incredible words I’ve heard. You know, for somebody doing incredible things to acknowledge another person doing incredible things. And honestly, I was a scout at the time, and I was just so inspired by those two people in front of me. I said to myself: “I have to do more.” And that was my first meeting with him. And the second time I met him, a couple of years later, he remembered me and he said, “You are the one with the smile.” Out of millions of people that this man has met, he remembered.
It’s an unforgettable smile!
“There’s something in the city that we’re all tied to in some special way. We are bonded with many things. And I love that.”
I know this installation is part of this Humanity Movement that you launched last year. Tell me more about what this movement is.
To me, it’s so simple. We have to go back to simplicity, right? Who are we as human beings is the question I always ask. I really feel that humanity should be taught in schools because youth, kids, my kids need to know [about] kindness that has gone on in the world. And my mind, my heart wants to preach kindness. It wants people to feel that way. And the goodness of the world is so, so important. A lending hand to other people, bringing people along as you go. Because every day we walk by and see, we don’t know what everybody is going through, especially now. And so, I was inspired by so many things: Nelson Mandela, the girls in Samburu, in Kenya, who go through early marriages, mutilation, those things are still going on in this world. And it’s an obligation for me and my position to speak about some of these things. And lastly, it’s to recognize people that do well and do good and we’ll continue to do that, whether it’s a small platform or a big platform, we will.
You know, racial wounds were re-opened last year after the murder of George Floyd, and it’s something that’s been at the forefront of everyone’s minds. In 2019, you also had a personal experience where you were stopped by a sheriff’s deputy from joining the Raptors on the court after they’d won the championship, which was very clearly a case of racial profiling. Looking back now, what effect would you say that encounter had on you?
For me, it’s honestly—you know, I’m a strong human being. And I want to be that way always. The challenge for me is being part of organizations or being part of movements that help others. There was an opportunity for me. I work in the NBA and you get that opportunity to have lawyers that help you and there are people that don’t. There are people that don’t have the opportunity to see a camera and tell the story or say what happened. And for me, that’s the challenge now. It’s gone past me, to be honest. My stuff is pretty much done. I’m going to say I’m a tough person, you know? So whatever he did, he did. But there are people that suffer these things and the world needs to pay attention to that. We need to pay attention to that because racial profiling cannot continue to happen. Now it’s happening to Asians, it’s happening to Black people, it’s happening to Indigenous people. We have to stand up and we have to speak. It’s an obligation for me to speak. So it’s not really about me now and what happened, you know, because honestly, I’ve gone past that. And we’ll win another championship and I’ll get to celebrate on the court [laughs].
You’ll finally get to celebrate properly!
Yeah, celebrate properly on the court [laughs].
Obviously, the Black Lives Matter movement exploded last year with civil rights protests taking place around the world. What do you think has changed since then?
You know, I think a lot of companies have hired diversity and inclusion officers and people have done things on the surface. I think years from now, we will see what people really did and the work people really put into this. I still go back to the humanity, that we really need to check ourselves, right? And it’s who we are as people. When I look at George Floyd and I saw him on the floor and this guy is kneeling down on his neck. That has nothing to do with being a policeman. His hands are handcuffed. Who are you as a human being? When you see somebody crying, peeing on himself, bleeding, his hands are cuffed around him, he has nowhere to go, and he’s screaming for his mom. Who are you as a human being, is what I say. That’s the question I ask. It comes down to this, it comes down to humanity, right? It has nothing to do with being a policeman. And when I saw that older white man that was pushed down in Buffalo and he’s bleeding from his ears—a 70-something-year-old white man—and these people are just walking and no help? It doesn’t matter [if] it’s my dad, right? He’s bleeding from his ears. You help him up. He’s helpless. Humanity. Who are you as a human being?
You talked earlier during your speech about how the diversity in Toronto was what ultimately made you want to stay here. Can you expand on that?
Look at this today—people from all walks of life, people from all places around the world. There’s Caribbeans, Asians, whites, Blacks, Indigenous, everybody here. That’s what I see at the games. It’s love. And it sees no colour, right? It’s people. We are human beings. That’s what I love about here; you see people from everywhere around the world. We have to continue that kindness and show people around the world too. We can’t go back to treating each other wrongly. It’s not right. It’s not.
In the video the Raptors released announcing that you were re-signing, you kept referring to the city as “home.” Why does Toronto feel like home to you?
It will always feel like home to me. This is where three of my kids were born and I appreciate it. And you feel the love, you know? There’s something in the city that we’re all tied to in some special way. We are bonded with many things. And I love that. Whether it’s my team, whether it’s winning a championship, whether it’s doing the work we do, whether it’s leaning on people or people leaning on us, there’s plenty of love in the city. And I love that.
The city loves you back, man.